Zen and the art of educational system repair

Take a deep breath


focus on one thing,


a single word,


a single phrase,


the most basic mantras of meditation and mindfulness,




now take a deep breath and hold it,


hold it just a second longer,


one second longer,


and now release.


You have now achieved mindfulness of the body and spirit,



Dr. Ellen J. Langer, however, published a paper on mindfulness that deviates slightly from the basics of zen and meditation.

By slightly, of course, I mean almost entirely, but for good reason. She posits that to be truly effective in the classroom as educators, we must have our students achieve mindfulness. She isn’t suggesting however, that we all get on top of our desks and hum in unison, unless you’re teaching a vibrations engineering class like I do.

“If we all hum at the the building’s resonant frequency, we can get the university safety inspector to pay us a visit”

What she, along with Dr. Wesch and Sir Ken Robison are suggesting is that we must throw out some of the old ‘sage on the stage’ and ‘blank stares in chairs’ teaching manuals and start to encourage a more interactive and customizable lesson plan.

“I’m haven’t understood anything since the syllabus and at this point I’m too afraid to ask”

The experts discussed how much more engaged and successful a student can be when they stop taking truths as gospel, when they are allowed to grapple with and own learned knowledge, when they start melding and molding their ideas around what they learned, when they are allowed to go back and forth between different concepts instead of focusing on one idea at a time, and when they get instant feedback on their individual conclusions, either from the instructor, from teaching assistants, or from their peers.

Students wrestling with ideas, together

But as an educator in a so-called ‘hard-science’, I still need to get my subject matter across before the end of the semester while, both myself and my students are being held to standards by the university. What am I to do?  How am I to embrace the diversity of my student body while accepting the conformity of the curriculum? How do I allow my students to express themselves and engage with me and each other, while still transmitting the entirety of each lesson? How do I allow them the time to ponder ideas and gain an individual ownership of them while staying on schedule?

The answer may lie in the discussion we had last week centered around networked learning. Having in-class lessons and discussions that continue online after the students have had time to ponder and perhaps discuss with each other later can be a solution. In addition to that, having interact with content online that is connected to the classroom discussions can be a way to individualize a student’s learning and supplement the curriculum without cutting into valuable classroom time.  Lastly, having assignments that include students generating original content and discussions that occur ‘after-hours’ exists as a way for the students to interact and express themselves, thereby  creating a connection to the classroom material and achieving mindfulness remotely.

“The first hour of enlightenment is free, then it’s $5  per minute of mindfulness after that”

Because, although we aren’t reaching nirvana per se in the classrooms, networked learning techniques may be the key to creating mindfully learning students who can understand subject matter while still expressing themselves and having a sense of individual ownership of their ideas.




  1. I thought this post was great! I really like how you wrap the Mindful Learning/Anti-Teaching material back to last week’s discussion on Networked Learning. I like that you are saying that we can encourage mindfulness and curiosity with a classroom cohort without cutting into classroom time that ABET will come down on you HARD for missing a lecture on some particular (often mundane) topic.

    Really great job; you should check out Craig’s post on Engineering Curriculum. https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/altmanct/2017/01/30/is-engineering-curriculum-in-u-s-universities-dead/

  2. Great post, Khaled. Are you familiar with the SCALE-UP program in physics? (See https://www.ncsu.edu/per/scaleup.html for more info.) It is a version of the flipped classroom in physics. The VT Physics department teaches the intro classes for majors this way. It is pretty cool to go to the classroom and observe. Not much delivery of information. Lots of time spent working in groups to answer carefully selected questions.

    1. I have actually seen of the SCALE-UP programs, and have been a part of the SCI-NEERING teams here, perhaps that’s where some of my inspiration came from?

  3. This made me smile and breathe and think! Thank you so much, Khaled! We have a guest speaker coming in a couple weeks who developed a “multi-modal” approach to teaching a huge (1,000?) class — her project includes many of the elements you mention here and I’m eager to hear what you think about it. Personally I think $5 / minute of enlightenment is a bargain.

    1. Well, for a remote by-skype guru, I suppose you’re not getting the full effect, but we ask students to pay full tuition for online courses all the time, are they getting the full effect of the interaction that they would get in the classroom?
      I’m glad I helped you achieve some spiritual balance with my post, perhaps more of that is needed these days.

  4. I like your post very much! I have been think about how to implement “mindful learning” in class too. The approach I am going to use is to have lunch with students and discuss what they are interested in. Then I can integrate some elements they like into the class. I also think your idea about using network learning in class is great. We can allow the students to communicate with each other online in class and maybe leave enough time for them to express their views.

  5. This was a great post! I have some of the same struggles with trying to translate some of the activities or concepts I’ve observed in classes outside of my discipline to my engineering classes. So much emphasis is made on the “right” answer that I think we’ve created an issue of students having procedural knowledge rather than concept knowledge on things that we need them to know as engineers. (I know I was guilty of this in my engineering science classes as an undergrad…) This semester though, through this class and others, I’m coming up with easy ways to implement active learning activities into my classroom so that the students are just mindlessly retaining information that they’ll lose when the semester is over. I do think it’s important to have a wrap-up moment at the end of class – another thing I don’t see in my engineering classes – where you make sure the students have the key points that they were suppose to get from the class period.

  6. Excellent short read! I found myself laughing out loud at Starbucks when reading your article. Thank you!

    I think you point out to a fundamental dilemma in this passage:

    How am I to embrace the diversity of my student body while accepting the conformity of the curriculum? How do I allow my students to express themselves and engage with me and each other, while still transmitting the entirety of each lesson? How do I allow them the time to ponder ideas and gain an individual ownership of them while staying on schedule?

    This is something that every professor grapples with, between allowing room for creativity and discussion in your class and the imperative of the Syllabus and delivering course content. There are time and space constraints that are always there, which leads professors like you and me to try our best to avoid monotony in the classroom. I would be interested in discussing how you organize the online class discussion since it’s something I would like to try as well!

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